[Special Report, The French Review 84.5 (April 2011): 910–16]

Making a Case for French: Arguments and Resources

by Marie-Christine Koop, AATF Past President

The elimination of foreign language programs in the United States is not a new phenomenon. In the recent past, however, a growing number of school districts and even universities have decided to eliminate not one, but several languages at the same time, and French has often been included in these drastic cuts. At a time when all institutions are facing stringent budget cuts due to the economic crisis, the disciplines that are perceived as non-essential—including of course foreign languages—are hit first. Paradoxically, this is occurring at a time when the need for proficiency in foreign languages has been widely acknowledged in influential circles.

The AATF headquarters regularly receive messages from colleagues whose French program is threatened of being eliminated. Members of the Executive Council immediately respond by writing letters to the individuals who are responsible for making decisions on these programs. While I was President of the AATF (2007–09), I wrote many such letters (and still do)—a sample was even published in the September 2009 issue of the AATF National Bulletin. In several cases, we have been successful in convincing school administrators to preserve the French program at their institution. A recent case, which made national headlines in Fall 2010, was the proposed elimination, at State University of New York, Albany, of the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. programs in French, along with the B.A. programs in Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater. This drastic situation led to a widely publicized mobilization of the faculty and students. As a result, articles appeared on the National Public Radio Web site (Adler), in the New York Times (Foderaro), and the TNR Blog (McWhorter). The news even spread across the Atlantic with an article in Libération, “Le français, langue inutile pour les Américains?” This chain reaction reflected a general disbelief, a difficulty to accept the fact that although French had been the first foreign language taught in the United States until the mid-1960s, it has been regularly losing ground and is now under threat.

The Center for Applied Linguistics has conducted surveys on the teaching of foreign languages at the elementary and secondary levels of schools in the United States. The 2008 edition (Rhodes and Pufahl) shows that only 11% of elementary schools were offering French in 2008 as compared with 27% in 1997; in contrast, Spanish has grown from 79% to 88% over the same period. At the secondary level, French has declined and is only present in 46% of foreign language programs, compared with 64% in 1997. In spite of this decline, another national survey conducted in 2007–08 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) revealed that French was listed as the favorite language by high school students nationwide, followed by Italian and then Spanish (Munce).

            When trying to preserve a French program at the secondary level, one can mention that Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges lists some 1,100 American colleges and universities that offer programs in French or related to French. These figures indicate that French is considered not only as an important language, but also as a significant discipline in college curricula nationwide. As studies show that students tend to continue in college the study of the language begun in high school, eliminating the French program from a secondary-school curriculum would deprive students of being exposed to a language benefiting of a global status, and prevent them from receiving initial training for international careers.

At the college level, French is in better shape. The 2009 survey conducted by the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) shows that French enrollment at American institutions of higher education increased by 4.8% between 2006 and 2009, compared with 5.1% in Spanish (Furman et al. 19). It is interesting to note that the increase in French enrollment between 2006 and 2009 has doubled, compared with the period between 2002 and 2006, while the growth in Spanish has declined by 50%, from 10.3% to 5.1%. As expected, the highest growth in enrollment between 2006 and 2009 was experienced by the so-called “critical languages”—Arabic (46.3%), Korean (19.1%), Chinese (18.2%)—and American Sign Language (16.4%), although the growth of all these languages has dwindled compared with the period 2002–06, which is not the case of French, whose growth has doubled, from 2.2% to 4.8%.

Overall, French is still the second foreign language taught in the United States, behind Spanish, and there is a reason for this. I will now quote some of the arguments that I have used in my letters of support for French programs. To begin with, over one third of the English vocabulary has been borrowed from French. As a result, students who have studied this language earn the highest scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT), a definite advantage for college admission at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Eliminating French from a curriculum could only be detrimental to the students, as demonstrated by Barbara Bullock in her excellent article, “The French Language Initiative.”

French is the official language of 28 countries spread over five continents, and is spoken in the 56 countries that make up the International Organization of French-Speaking Countries (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie or OIF). French, along with English, is the official working language of the United Nations, UNESCO, NATO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Labor Bureau, the International Olympic Committee, the 47-member Council of Europe, the European Union, the Universal Postal Union, the International Red Cross, and the Union of International Associations (UIA). French is also the dominant working language at the European Court of Justice, the European Tribunal of First Instance, and the Press Room at the European Commission in Brussels.

Richard Shryock (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—or Virginia Tech), maintains a very useful Web page, “French: The Most Practical Foreign Language.” The reader learns, for example, that France is a European leader in aerospace (Aérospatiale, Arianespace, Airbus...), and that most commercial satellites are put into space on French Ariane rockets. Other arguments can be very convincing: the fastest train (TGV) is French; France is the world’s third nuclear power (after the United States and Russia), and has the world’s second largest defense industry; France is the site of the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor; it is also a world leader in medical research and genetics; fiber optics and the microchip were invented by French scientists; and the AIDS virus was also discovered by a team of French researchers.

Regarding professional opportunities, Shryock regularly updates his survey on the listing of international jobs distributed by the State Department: in December 2009, 92 employment ads required or preferred French, 36 Spanish, 11 a United Nations language (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish), 7 Arabic, 5 Russian, 1 Japanese, 1 Hindi, 1 German, and 1 Chinese. According to the fact sheet released by the Bureau of International Organization Affairs of the State Department in November 2009, among the various types of professional positions for which international organizations recruit, four required French, two Spanish, and one Arabic (Shryock).

French is also one of the official languages of Canada, our most important trading partner, and the only official language of the province of Quebec, which is our sixth-largest trading partner. France has the fifth-largest economy in the world and, along with other French-speaking countries, it has always been a major economic partner of the United States. As mentioned by Shryock, French companies alone have created more than 520,000 jobs in the United States, while American companies employ 650,000 people in France. The knowledge of French and the cultures of Francophone countries are therefore important to the United States. Additional information on the importance of French in the world may be found on the Web site of the French Language Initiative, a project developed by AATF with the collaboration and support of the French Embassy in Washington and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs around the slogan “The World Speaks French” (http://www.theworldspeaksfrench.org).

Robert Peckham (University of Tennessee, Martin)—also known as “Tennessee Bob”—has developed several tools available on line. His page, On the Importance of Knowing French,” is divided into categories that include arguments for French, the Francophone world, the French language and its supporters, a list of French inventions, and France’s rank in various domains within Europe and the world. As Chair of the AATF Commission on Advocacy, Peckham has developed his Advocacy Depot, which contains dozens of links to Web sites and resources to help French instructors at all levels defend their French program and recruit students. What makes this Web site unique is the presence of links not only for the promotion and advocacy for French in general, but also for facts and arguments at the local and state levels; this can be particularly useful to secure data of an economic nature, which are more likely to convince school administrators. Indeed, when attempting to make a case for French, it is always advantageous to include the benefits of learning French for students in a particular state, by referring to the French heritage, historical partnerships and/or cultural ties, trade figures, and the presence of companies from French-speaking countries in the state. In this respect, the United States Census Bureau provides information on import and export values with foreign countries. For 2010, for example, Canada was competing with China for the first place, while France was in the eighth place (http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/top/dst/current/balance.html). It is also important to remind one’s audience that half of the African continent has French as an official or administrative language and represents a very promising potential market for the United States. Abdou Diouf, former President of Senegal and current Secretary General of the OIF, made it clear: “the future of the French language is now in Africa” (Kimmelman).

The Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), the informal coalition of national, regional, and state language teaching associations—of which the AATF is a member—and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) are engaged in public advocacy on behalf of languages and international education (http://www.languagepolicy.org). They maintain a “press room” where the latest Federal initiatives in language policy are posted. They also offer a service in advocacy that includes letter-writing, making visits to policy makers, testifying on policy issues, as well as building coalitions with other organizations.

The impending elimination of a French program rarely happens overnight. We should be able to anticipate such an event and we all need to be vigilant and monitor student enrollment in order to identify weaknesses before they become problems. The AATF Advocacy Wiki proposes document samples with arguments and various resources (https://frenchadvocacy.wikispaces.com). Also, the AATF Materials Center (http://www.frenchteachers.org/hq/materials/material.htm) offers flyers for the promotion of French, as well as The French Language Advocacy Kit, developed by Margot Steinhart and the AATF Chicago/Northern Illinois Chapter, with the support of the AATF Advocacy Commission, the French Cultural Services, and Northwestern University. The success of a program is directly related to the dedication of its faculty who must strive to diversify their course offerings in order to meet the specific needs of their students. When a program is threatened, it is important to immediately contact the AATF headquarters and mobilize the community in every possible way, including the students and parents—at the elementary and secondary levels—who can intervene and be quite convincing with administrators.

In making a case for French, it is also useful to refer to recent events that have led to a renewed interest in foreign languages on the part of the United States government. Following 9/11, President Bush had allocated substantial funding to the study of foreign languages, study abroad programs, and the training of foreign language teachers. President Obama has also spoken publicly about the importance of speaking foreign languages. A list of languages deemed as critical was developed by the Department of Defense, and French was among them because it is spoken in countries that occupy a strategic position. There is now a consensus on the fact that Americans in general are deficient in foreign languages, compared with their partners in Europe and Asia. In December 2010, the CIA Director, the Secretary of Education, and other government leaders participated in a CIA Foreign Language Summit held at University of Maryland. CIA Director Leon Panetta highlighted the importance of foreign languages:

If we are truly interested in having America succeed in the future, with regards to foreign language training, then I believe that the United States should require language study beginning at a younger age [. . .] we need to get back to mandating language training as a requirement for graduating from college. (Abdul-Alim)

Panetta also mentioned the necessity of adding a fourth “R” in the curriculum: “that ‘R’ stands for reality, the reality of the world that we live in [. . .] This country cannot simply expect the rest of the world to speak English. We must be multilingual.” During that Summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deplored the fact that American colleges and universities were not producing enough foreign language instructors, while Clifford Stanley, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, added that the effort to improve and expand foreign language instruction must begin at the pre-K level. A NAFSA survey conducted in Fall 2010 confirms that the American public is becoming aware of the importance of foreign languages: for 57% of the respondents, international education is considered very essential or moderately essential to the educational experience, while 65% believe that if our young people do not learn foreign languages, they will be at a competitive disadvantage in their careers (http://www.nafsa.org/publicpolicy/default.aspx?id=23955).

Following these encouraging statements, one can expect the announcement of new initiatives and additional funding for foreign languages on the part of the Federal government. Let us hope that short-term budgetary constraints will not interfere with these good resolutions. Information on new legislation and grant programs will be posted on the Web site of the JNCL-NCLIS (http://www.languagepolicy.org).

University of North Texas


Works Cited

Abdul-Alim, Jamaal. “CIA Chief Leon Panetta, Federal Officials Urge Scholars to Help Improve Foreign Language Learning in U.S.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 9 Dec. 2010 <http://diverseeducation.com/article/14508>.

Adler, Margot. “Cuts to University’s Humanities Program Draw Outcry.” National Public Radio 16 Nov. 2010 <http://www.npr.org/2010/11/15/131336270/cuts-to-university-s-humanities-program-draw-outcry>.

Bullock, Barbara. “The French Language Initiative.” The French Language Advocacy Kit. Carbondale, IL: AATF, 2009.

Foderaro, Lisa W. “Budget-Cutting Colleges Bid Some Languages Adieu.” New York Times 3 Dec. 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/education/05languages.html?_r=2&ref=education>.

Furman, Nelly, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009. New York: MLA, 2010 <http://www.mla.org/2009_enrollmentsurvey>.

“Le français, langue inutile pour les Américains?” Libération 21 décembre 2010 <http://www.liberation.fr/monde/01012309294-le-francais-langue-inutile-pour-les-americains>.

Kimmelman, Michael. “Pardon My French.” New York Times 21 April 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/arts/25abroad.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print>

McWhorter, John. “Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?” TNR Blog 13 Dec. 2010 <http://www.tnr.com/blog/john-mcwhorter/79843/which-languages-should-liberal-arts-be-about-in-2010>.

Munce, Ryan, ed. 2008 ACTFL Student Survey Report. Alexandria, VA: ACTFL, 2008.

NAFSA. “Educating Students for Success in the Global Economy: A Public Opinion Survey on the Importance of International Education.” Washington, DC: Association of International Educators, 2011 <http://www.nafsa.org/publicpolicy/default.aspx?id=23955>.

Peckham, Robert. “On the Importance of Knowing French.” University of Tennessee, Martin <http://www.utm.edu/staff/globeg/profren.shtml>.

Peckham, Robert. The Advocacy Depot. AATF Commission on Advocacy <http://www.utm.edu/staff/globeg/advofr.shtml>.

Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges. New York: NelNet, updated every year <http://www.petersons.com/college-search.aspx>.

Rhodes, Nancy C., and Ingrid Pufahl. “Executive Summary.” Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2009.

Shryock, Richard. “French: The Most Practical Foreign Language.” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University <http://www.fll.vt.edu/french/whyfrench.html>.